Election 2021: Some final thoughts

This is Sergio Marchi’s final article in the weekly series on the federal election.  

Former Prime Minister John Turner was fond of saying on election night that, “The people are always right!”

Well, rightly or wrongly, Canadians have spoken. They chose to extend Trudeau’s minority reign. However, in their collective wisdom, the voters confirmed how unnecessary this election really was by electing essentially the same Parliament as before. Back to the future!

Moreover, in the process, they denied Trudeau the majority he sought; they did not vote for a Conservative government; they refused to grant a single seat to the People’s Party; they voted against the Green Party Leader; they chose not to offer the seat bump that both the NDP and Bloc were hoping for; they tripped up Premier Legault’s very public urgings to vote in a Conservative minority; and despite Jody Wilson-Raybauld repeatedly body-slamming the PM over the SNC Lavalin, the issue proved to be inconsequential.

So, after a campaign of endless political speeches, it seemed that the voters had a lot to say on election night. I believe they were incredibly astute in their judgement. They also set in motion potential leadership rumblings.

In looking at the outcome of another Liberal minority government, let me highlight a few issues that  I believe converged to produce the results we got.

First, people were frustrated right until the end that the PM called an unnecessary, early election. The PM saw an opportunity for a majority, and he gambled. He lost the bet. He was unable to provide voters with a clear, coherent rationale for consulting the people at this time. Naturally, he couldn’t tell them the real reason that motivated him to role the dice. Accordingly, he left himself vulnerable to attacks from all the  parties, the media, and ultimately the public. He was particularly hampered by this vulnerability in the early days of the campaign, where he was pushed off balance by the other leaders. Had he laid out a believable and credible rationale, and based on his platform, I believe he would have received a majority mandate.

Second, O’Toole blundered on Covid by not urging mandatory vaccines. The vast majority of Canadians support a vaccine passport, so O’Toole was clearly on the wrong side. He wildly misread the public mood. He also refused to confirm how many of his candidates were vaccinated, and he would not criticize Premier Kenny for the Corona crisis in his province. He looked weak and cagey on an issue that the public demanded clarity. Trudeau benefited hugely from this miscalculation. As well, it allowed the PM to speak to the poor management of the pandemic by Conservative Premiers. Not surprisingly, Covid was the overarching issue of the campaign.

Third, O’Toole misfired (sorry for the pun!) on the gun issue. He proposed to repeal parts of the firearm legislation, and this caused grave concern in many communities, especially in our major cities, where gun violence has been a particular problem. Again, he badly misread the public.The Tory leader ended up reversing his position, but the damage was done. He was pinned to the gun lobby, and Canadians were not prepared to trust him on his u-turn

Fourth, Trudeau clearly won the debate on childcare. His plan is very popular with working families, and the provinces. O’Toole had promised to rip up the agreements that the federal government had signed with the provinces, and offered his own tax credit alternative. The public didn’t buy it, and opted to stay the course with the Liberals.

Finally, there was much said about the economy, inflation, and deficit spending. But this did not appear to be a prominent driver of votes, as is usually the case in campaigns. Pocket book voting traditionally is a powerful factor. But on reflection, the public seemed to condone the massive spending of the last two years as necessary tools with which to combat the threat of Covid to people’s lives. Canadians preferred the assistance to keep them on their feet, rather than crawling out of the pandemic on their knees.

The public verdict will also no doubt create leadership discussions and troubles in a number of the parties;

  • Liberals were relieved to win another minority, however, many are already speculating that the Trudeau era will soon come to a close. Trudeau owns the calling of an election for the purposes of winning a majority, and his failure has bruised his brand. The other question is, how long does Trudeau want to carry on for? Is the political fire still burning, or is it beginning to wane?
  • O’Toole campaigned from the center after winning his party’s leadership from the right side of the political spectrum. And now that he has lost and failed to boost his seat count beyond what Andrew Sheer had achieved, many social conservatives inside and outside the caucus are quite bitter. Political knives are no doubt being sharpened. Indeed, O’Toole’s concession speech was really a fiery campaign speech intended to push back those who will be coming for him in the days ahead. He’s definitely concerned about keeping his job.
  • Annamie Paul will likely resign or be pushed out quickly. Not only did the party have a terrible evening, but she also failed to win her riding again. In seeking to contest a Toronto riding which was, and continues to be, a Liberal stronghold, she showed a streak of stubbornness that undermined her judgement.
  • Singh is a likeable leader, who shows a great deal of authenticity and empathy. But in two elections, he has not lifted the party’s fortune. He is probably safe for now, as no one is in the wings just yet. Also, he continues to have a pivotal role to play in this minority Parliament, so many of his partisans would argue that this is not be the time to change horses.
  • Bernier says that his party is here to stay, but it is a marginal player. The controversy over mandated vaccines gave him a passionate (but wrong) narrative and yet, he was unable to win a single seat, although he did act as a spoiler for a number of Tory seats. I’m sure that brought him a smile, but that is small comfort for the massive effort.
  • The Bloc Leader? Well, no one outside Quebec really cares. He only spoke to Quebecers and provincial issues. He returns to the House with about the same seats, despite the Premier’s best efforts to help his old friend. He too is probably in safe waters, at least for one more election.

A word about the number crunchers. Like previous election battles, there was a litany of public polls released during the last 36 days. To their credit, on the whole, the pollsters got it right. They predicted a minority government, and a 30-seat lead for the Liberals — and that’s what we got.

Finally, the nastiness of the campaign is likely to mar the next Parliament. Feelings and differences will still be raw and some leaders will be desperate in their attacks, given their leadership worries. That would be unfortunate. The country is still in the grips of the pandemic’s fourth wave, and there are many critical issues that require collaboration and not confrontation. It’s my hope that cooler heads will prevail, especially after a campaign that saw too much verbal abuse and in some cases, physical altercations. But I remain skeptical.

The prime minister I served with, Jean Chretien, once said that, “The art of politics is learning to walk with your back to the wall, your elbows high, and a smile on your face. It’s a survival game played under the glare of lights”.

On September 20th, Canadians closed the lights on another election. The morning after, the sun was shinning bright in the nation’s capital, people were off to work, and kids walked to school. Canadians, in other words, easily moved on from this campaign and resumed their lives.

Meanwhile, the lights are still burning bright for politicians and political pundits, who are still busy analyzing the what-ifs and next steps. For them, this campaign results will live on. Eventually, new political strategies will be established, new issues will surface, and new leaders will emerge. Politics will continue to reinvent itself, while Canada continues to be the stable and generous country that is envied by so many people around the globe.

The Hon. Sergio Marchi served as an elected City Councillor, Member of Parliament, Minister and Ambassador.

Header image: via CBC